by Penny Holler, MPA Candidate, University of Kansas
My husband and I had lunch this summer in beautiful downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Since I started my graduate degree at the University of Kansas in June, we had been enjoying getting to know our new city by eating our way through its restaurants. One sunny Saturday afternoon, we were seated at a glass window overlooking historic Massachusetts Street. The brick restaurant on the corner was upscale, with fine food, and in my case, fine company.
Outside our air-conditioned part of the world, a homeless man came to sit on a bench directly in front of our window. He was a bit ragged and clearly overheated. Our casual lunch changed from relishing our food to dutifully finishing what we had ordered. We asked for the check and a cup of ice water. Our conversation was minimal but the man outside accepted the cold water we offered. I wanted to do more and was concerned about this person in the hot weather. The reason that I could not follow dozens of people who kept walking by this man is the same reason that I want to work in local government.
I care about people. I don’t mean that I care about others in a general sense of humanity and goodwill. I care in a way that is motivating to enter the arena of local government, to get some dirt under my fingernails, and to try to improve the situation. I care because I can’t turn off an awareness that there are problems, and I have the potential to help. Ultimately, I have to sleep well at night in my warm, safe bed and that feels harder to do in 2017.
I have been inspired by the local government people who I met at ICMA's conference in San Antonio, Texas. Many of them are tackling the difficult issues like health care and public safety. I sense in them the same weight of responsibility that I feel. And yet, the more I learn about local government, the more I doubt my ability to be a successful participant.
I had coffee recently with a world-class assistant city manager. Like me, she is the mother of two small children. She outlined her week, and it consisted of five nights of meetings after 5 p.m. Her words of advice included lining up childcare for unusual working hours. She also suggested that I accept the fact that to be successful in local government leadership means giving up a lot of time with your own children. This sentiment was echoed by a panelist at a conference session. Both an attorney and city manager, a panelist's answer to a question on work-life balance centered around fairness to coworkers and her need for staff “to get the job done.”
I have yet to work a single day in local government, and I am already rethinking my career path. I have been a smart, confident, and capable worker in state government, in private business, and doing nonprofit work. As a mom, I believe that I bring a greater understanding of family and community to the table. I know that the homeless man in Lawrence is someone’s son and probably someone else’s father and husband. This encourages me to find ways to solve problems like homelessness. I want to build a community where fewer people are left behind. However, if the expectation of working mothers in government is that we leave behind our family responsibilities while solving community problems, that seems like a sad definition of success.
I may be one of a hundred people who has failed the homeless man, but I am one of only two who refuses to fail in raising two sweet, blue-eyed, gappy-toothed kids. Leadership can go far to include female professionals into public administration. But it is those long-standing structural practices that might be the true barrier for me. If nightly meetings are a long-standing expectation of city and county managers, I hope we are at least asking the question of why.
If the answer is that it has always been done this way, our management profession may continue to miss out on well-qualified women who can quickly calculate the detriment to their family responsibilities. I might make a great human resources director or aging services manager with a better chance to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But if myself and thousands of smart, capable women settle because the system doesn’t support our dual responsibilities, it might put our communities that much further behind solving society’s tough problems.